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By Dee Gill

Quick, which is the better long-term investment: the most efficient, well-run company in an industry, or the one that's not as good, but improving? For the past several years, the fast-food industry's gold standard -- McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) -- has lagged considerably behind the wannabe -- YUM! Brands (NYSE:YUM) -- in shareholder returns. It's falling further behind this year.

MCD Chart

MCD data by YCharts

The usual reasons for a wannabe to outrun a stalwart don't seem to apply here. Yes, Yum, with its $32.2 billion market cap is little more than a third the size of McDonald's. But revenue growth over four years has been roughly equivalent for the two companies. Until late last year, profit growth was, too.

MCD Revenue Quarterly YoY Growth Chart

MCD Revenue Quarterly YoY Growth data by YCharts

Both companies offered dividend increases along the way to attract investors. McDonald's consistently offered a superior dividend yield -- 3.5% now, compared to Yum's 1.9% -- but that hasn't been enough to make it the better investment.

MCD Total Return Price Chart

MCD Total Return Price data by YCharts

McDonald's two earnings misses this year have led to several downgrades of its shares, even as analysts continue to refer to the company as "best-in-class" and the "gold standard" of the industry. McDonald's ability to beat both analyst forecasts and its competitors throughout the worst of the recession give it a revered spot among value investors, who appreciate the consistency. Its profit margins and cash flow remain superior to Yum and most others in this business. For company stores, operating margins at McDonald's were 18.9% in 2011, compared to 16.1% at Yum. Here's a look at the overall performance of each:

MCD EBITDA Margin TTM Chart

MCD EBITDA Margin TTM data by YCharts

But it's going to be difficult for McDonald's to maintain steady growth with Europe in a recession and Asia growth slowing considerably, especially after reporting some eight-plus years of steadily increasing same store sales. Such gains can't continue indefinitely. McDonald's CEO Donald Thompson warned that October comparable sales already are turning negative.

Meanwhile, Yum has attracted about as many buy recommendations, making it the more popular pick among analysts these days. Yum's CEO, David Novak, revised his full-year earnings forecast upward. A big reason for his long-term optimism comes from the company's big push into China, where it will open some 750 restaurants this year. But it also comes from the understanding that KFCs and Pizza Huts are not nearly as profitable as they should be. "We have 38,000 restaurants with underutilized assets," Novak told analysts post-earnings. Same store sales will rise as Yum adds products like breakfast and makes the operations more efficient.

In other words, Yum can grow by doing what McDonald's has already done. This would not be such a problem for McDonald's investors if the share prices of the two companies reflected this difference in growth prospects. At the moment, though, McDonald's shares are not significantly cheaper than Yum's.

MCD EV / EBITDA TTM Chart

MCD EV / EBITDA TTM data by YCharts

There's no guarantee that Yum can pull off a McDonald's-level improvement, and conservative investors may prefer to stick with the company with more proven ability. Because no company can get too good at running its business.

Dee Gill is a contributing editor at YCharts.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.